Sunday, February 4, 2024

Albanese uses tax cuts to ease cost of living pressure - a little

 Having trouble deciding the rights and wrongs of Anthony Albanese’s claim to be changing the stage 3 tax cuts in a way that helps ease cost of living pressure without adding to inflation? The air’s been thick with economists making confusing statements on the topic.

For instance, economists at one bank say any tax cut will add to inflation pressure, but canning the cut would allow the Reserve Bank to lower interest rates by 0.5 per cent. Those at another outfit say Albo’s changes will be inflationary because they involve reducing the tax cuts going to high-income earners (who would have saved more of it) and increasing the tax cuts going to low and middle-income earners (who, being harder up, will spend more of it).

Well, let’s see if I can help you decide what to think of the government’s changes. There are three main ways to decide.

The first is a very popular method: let your preferred party do your thinking for you. If you vote Labor, conclude the change must be a good idea. If you vote Liberal, conclude it must be a terrible betrayal of the nation’s trust.

Second, just as popular method: look yourself up in the government’s “what you save” tax table and see how the change will affect you. If you’ll be better off under Albo’s changes, conclude they’re just what the economy needs. If you’ll be worse off than you would have been under former prime minister Scott Morrison’s original stage 3, conclude it will be an economic disaster.

Third, a rarely used method: try to work out which version would, in all the circumstances, have been best for the nation as a whole, regardless of how you personally would be affected.

Adding to this week’s confusion is that, in principle, Albanese’s goal of reducing cost of living pressures without adding to inflation pressure is a contradiction in terms.

Why? Because increasing the cost of living pressure on households is the very stick the managers of the economy are using to get inflation down. It’s deliberate.

When the economy is growing so strongly that the demand for goods and services is running faster the economy’s ability to supply them, prices keep rising.

So the only quick way economists can think of to stop prices rising so rapidly is to slow demand by throttling people’s ability to keep spending. This makes it harder for businesses to keep whacking up their prices.

This is precisely the reason the Reserve has increased interest rates so greatly: to leave people with mortgages with less money to spend on other things.

The government’s been helping with the squeeze by hanging on to almost all the extra income tax we’ve been paying – including because of bracket creep – and getting the budget into surplus.

A budget surplus means the government is using its taxes to take more spending potential out of the economy than it’s putting back in with its own spending.

Get it? The plan is to fix inflation by making the cost of living squeeze worse, to eventually make it better. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Albanese and his Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, know this full well. But so many people are feeling so much pain that they’re threatening to vote against the government, so they had to find a way to ease the pain.

This is a major rejig of the planned tax cuts, to ensure much more of the money goes to low- and middle-income earners – who’ve been hurting most – and much less to the top earners.

But hang on. Treasury expects the budget to return to big deficits in the coming financial year. Why? Because the government long ago legislated for the stage 3 tax cuts, costing a massive $21 billion a year.

Clearly, by easing the cost of living pressure on households, the tax cuts will reduce the downward pressure on prices. So those economists saying the fastest way to get the rate of inflation down would be to abandon the tax cuts are right.

But the cuts have been on the books for so long that this easing of pain coming from the budget has already been taken into account by the Reserve in deciding how much interest rates needed to rise. The tax cuts have also been taken into account in the econocrats’ forecasts of how long it will take to get inflation down.

What hasn’t been accounted for is that so much more of the $21 billion a year will now be going to people far more likely to need to rush out and spend it.

In Treasury’s published advice to the government, it acknowledges that these people have a higher “marginal propensity to consume”, but then asserts that this “will not add to inflationary pressures”.

Sorry, not convinced. What I would accept is that the effect on consumer spending isn’t so big it outweighs the other reasons for Albanese’s changes: the need for greater fairness and to keep a “progressive” income tax scale.

The defenders of the original stage 3 cuts claim that, by putting almost everyone on the same, 30¢-in-the-dollar marginal rate of tax, it would put an end to bracket creep.

Sorry, not true. Despite the name, you don’t literally have to move into a higher bracket to suffer from inflation causing your overall, average rate of tax to creep ever higher over time.

That’s why we can’t just go year after year allowing bracket creep to roll on. That’s why we do need to have a decent tax cut this year.

The original version of stage 3 wouldn’t have ended bracket creep, but would have greatly reduced it. Trouble is, it would have done so in a way that favoured high-income earners at the expense of everyone else. This even though bracket creep hits people lower down harder than those higher up.

On page 8 of its advice to the government, Treasury does a good job of demonstrating that Albanese’s way of returning (some of) the proceeds of bracket creep is much fairer.